Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Cryptic Message from Old Yale, or You’d Better Write that Check

 When I found this postcard depicting Yale’s Alumni Hall, I was intrigued by its odd inscription, “The House of Terror”. This vivid comment makes us wonder just what was so horrific about this building. 

The mystery postcard

We conjure up mental images of recalcitrant alumni being forced to finally make that donation, through means too awful to name aloud. Supporting this, we can see a couple of what look like Durfee residents lurking behind an elm tree in obvious fear of the building, terrified that the dreaded Alumni will get them.

Better make a run for it.

Although Alumni Hall is long gone, Yale must still employ some of the same techniques; its fund-raising efforts seem more successful than generosity alone could account for. Consider that its recent fund drive, ending just last June, raised nearly four billion dollars.
What's left of Alumni Hall

Here is more evidence of the nefarious nature of Alumni Hall’s activities: after its demolition, the towers were saved and re-erected by Yale’s notorious Skull and Bones Society. Hidden in the rear courtyard of the Skull and Bones Tomb, who knows what dark rituals are yet performed there.

The Towers today, with their simplified battlements.
Aerial view today, showing the twin octagonal towers.

Alumni Hall was built in 1853, designed by one of the great architects of the day, Alexander Jackson Davis. Two of his iconic buildings are the New York Customs House, the emblem of Wall Street, and the Gothic Revival masterpiece Lyndhurst in Tarrytown. The present photo was copyright 1901, and the building was razed in 1911 to build the still-standing Wright Hall.

The Wadsworth Atheneum
  Although its symmetry makes it less romantic than some Gothic Revival structures, we can see Alumni Hall’s relation to other Davis buildings. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford has a similar entry pavilion flanked by towers, and Alumni Hall’s octagonal crenellated towers themselves are echoed in Davis’ design for Tudor Villa in New Rochelle, New York.

Tudor Villa, another Davis building

With all this in mind, I set out to unravel the mystery. I thought perhaps the caption was once a catch-phrase, and tried to look it up, but unfortunately “House of Terror” now has a much darker and more literal meaning than it ever could have then. The kind of terrorism which today has become prevalent underscores the innocence of that day over one hundred years ago.

Some further digging reveals the probable source of the writer’s trepidation. It turns out that Alumni Hall was basically one large room. Written examinations were an innovation in the 1850’s, and term exams were held in Alumni Hall. In fact, some of the original exam tables are still to be seen in the Yale Art Gallery.

Even in the early twentieth century, the typical student at Yale was not the brilliant scholar type, and we can finally see this photo of Alumni Hall through the anonymous writer’s eyes.

So it seems that alumni actually had little to do with Alumni Hall, other than possibly paying for it. Still, today’s reluctant donors, recalling those extant tables and towers, might want to reconsider their position and pony up: “Well, Mr. Bush, are you going to endow that library, or do you want to re-take that Philosophy exam?”


  1. Hello:
    What a fascinating account you give here of Alumni Hall at Yale. We are convinced that any place used as a place for taking examinations could well have been thought of as a House of Terror.

    Of course, for us here in Budapest,the House of Terror actually exists. Built on the site of the feared number 60 on Andrassy Street, home of the erstwhile secret police,it stands today as a symbol and museum of terrors that have been committed right up to the recent past.

  2. Hello Jane and Lance, I was just reading about 60 Andrassy Street. How sad and ironic that such an elegant mansion, supposedly the epitome of culture and domestic values, should be perverted to such uses.

  3. I wonder how those towers are used today — they appear to have octagonal rooms — perhaps for initiations? I love the old secrets that colleges hold. My campus was laid out to be a ship's diagram, but of course succeeding donors couldn't stick to the design, and now all that's left is an isolated stone ship's bow.

  4. Hello Mark, Given Skull and Bones penchant for secrecy, we'll never know, but your guess seems likely. I haven't sought out a floor plan, but there is a good chance the towers originally served as stairwells. I imagine they were moved in the spirit of a garden folly.

    Your college design was pretty original--too bad it was shipwrecked.

  5. this is so cool! i'm such a conspiracy theory person, i've always wondered about the skull& bones society, but i have come to personally think it is more hype and less threat. like a fraternity that just took itself too seriously. But on the architecture, it reminds me of the West Virginia State Penitentiary. My great-great grandfather built that prison in the 1800's. It is an incredible example of gothic architecture. It is closed to prisoners now, but open for tours and many movies and tv shows have been filmed there, as it is known as one of the most haunted prisons. Which is so wierd for me, as my great-great was it's first warden. but you should look at the architecture , as it s like the ones you featured here!

  6. What a marvelous bit of sleuthing you have done here! I enjoyed this immensely, having gone to Yale, and also having collected old Yale postcards for decades. Great job, and welcome to the blogosphere! Reggie

  7. Hello KC, I just checked out the Penitentiary, an amazing building with a somewhat checkered history, which as you point out forms an interesting parallel to the Davis examples. Although a different style, it reminds me of the Ohio State Penitentiary in Mansfield. Ohio.

  8. Hello Reggie, I am so glad you enjoyed this posting. It was largely your blog which introduced me to the world of interesting blogs, and which spurred me to try my own hand. We are all looking forward to new installments of Reggie Darling.

  9. I think your guess seems likely - I remember freshman year in college taking an exam in a large room in a 19th century building with 600 other students - terror indeed!! Those dreaded huge weeding-out 100 level courses! I've always loved Yale's gothic architecture and as I actually grew up in Tarrytown, I am very familiar with Lyndhurst!

  10. Hello quintessence, I always tried to avoid those large lecture classes. How cool that you come from Tarrytown, with all that great architecture and history, not to mention Washington Irving.

  11. I find it interesting that Alumni Hall (1853) was part of the well known oeuvre of Alexander Jackson Davis. Presumably the university decision-makers knew they wanted neo-Gothic architecture, saw Davis' work and were delighted with his projects.

    And it is interesting that Oxford, Cambridge, Sydney and many other centres of higher learning were developing a taste for neo-Gothic at more or less the same time.

    1. Hello Hels, There were actually three distinct waves of Gothic architecture at Yale. Alumni Hall was part of the Gothic Revival of the first half of the 19th century, and perhaps ironically it was razed for an example of 1920s Collegiate Gothic.

      A.J. Davis was certainly one of the most respected architects of the period, and his former partnership with New Haven Ithiel Town may also have influenced their choice.

  12. This makes me want to live in a castle.

    1. Hello Mike, Were this building still standing, I too would be happy to move right in.


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